Favourite Fall Reads

We all think of certain things when we think about fall. Golden, crispy leaves falling from trees, chilly nights, Halloween preparations, allspice and cinnamon, the end of the school year (finally). Most of what I associate with fall, however, comes from literature and movies. Where I am from, fall is stealthy and subtle: the rainy season comes to an end and the temperatures slowly get a bit lower each night. I first experienced an actual autumn five years ago in England. One day I looked out of my window into Asbury Close in Cambridge and saw that the pavement and the grass were almost fully covered in a coat of leaves, orange and brown, held tightly together by the morning mist. Fall is perhaps my favourite season since. In Mexico City I love it too, but in a different way. The heavy rains stop and there are clear skies by day; the nights are cold and windy, and there’s pan de muerto in every supermarket.

Most Western cultures’ celebrations during the fall are related to the equinnox, the Celtic Samhain and the christian All Hallow’s Eve —Día de Todos los Santos and Día de Muertos here, traditions coming from Spain and native Americans—. Most of these celebrations are somehow related with death and rebirth, with the links between the living and the dead, and with the harvest.

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The view from what I wish was my window. It is actually York Minster and, so they told me, you can’t live there.

It actually makes sense that we have come to associate this particular season with nostalgia: the autumn marks the end of the summer, of fruits and green leaves, and the transition to winter, what was before a season of rationing and scarcity —and really, if it wasn’t for Christmas, winters would suck—: it is the year getting old, but also getting ready to start again.

It would suffice to take a look at most literature about fall, specially poetry, to get the blues. When I think of fall I usually see myself in an English cottage, having a cup of coffee and reading a book with a blanket on my lap. There’s usually a fireplace nearby and a big alaskan malamute dozing off at my feet. Oh, and in most of these reveries I have a very thick Yorkshire accent, who knows. And really, apart from taking a stroll outside (if you’re lucky enough to live where the trees actually shed their leaves and the quality of the air is okay—no offense here, Mexico City), and having pumpkin lattes/cakes/pies/lipbalms/hand creams, getting nostalgic over a book under a cosy blanket is the best next thing. If you agree with these statements, you might like the books I’m about to suggest.

 

9780141199887Villette, Charlotte Brontë

By now it is a tradition for me to read some Charlotte Brontë during the fall. Villette is one of those books that don’t get the attention they deserve. I would go as far as to say it’s one of the best novels of the 19th century, along with Jane Eyre. Villette is the name of a small town in an unnamed country in Europe —possibly in Belgium— to which the young Lucy Snowe arrives one cold evening. Lucy, just like Jane Eyre, has nothing but an indomitable self reliance, intelligence and hope.

All her life, Lucy has been taking care of an old lady for a living and now she finds herself in a strange land, a teacher in a girl’s boarding school. Like any good 19th century novel, there’s love, mean old people, class-based obstacles and even ghosts. A blending of sadness, hope and rebellion from the perspective of one of the greatest characters in literature. This is also a somewhat nostalgic book. Similarly to Jane Eyre, Villette is the narrative of Lucy Snowe’s memories, tinted sometimes with regret and sadness. If I had to name a theme for this book, it would be courage. Think of reading about ancient châteaus where eerie occurrences take place, of lonely musings by moonlight and of turbulent nights spent on a boat during a storm. Tempting, isn’t it?

 

12948The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

This one is really a must. Get yourself a pot of coffee, some blankets and read this when you’re all by yourself. All you need to know about the plot is that there’s something wrong with the kids this governess has to take care of, but she doesn’t know what exactly it is. Might have something to do with the fact that she has never met their parents, or that they live in a secluded property in the middle of nowhere, or that the only people there apart form themselves seem to know something and act weird all the time, or that these kids are just creepy. Enough to drive anyone crazy; now add some ghost stories about the house. Is there something wrong with the kids? What was that noise? Did you just hear something rapping at your actual window while reading this book? Really, a must.

 

9780006479239The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Mars. A red planet with red soil and red skies— what is more suitable for fall? This book can be read as a novel or as a series of short stories. In both cases, it is about the colonization of Mars from different perspectives: that of the martians, of the spacemen, of the people who remain in Earth. Bradbury manages to introduce one of his favourites themes into space: nostalgia.

Why humans leave the Earth is not nearly as important as showing how they try to make Mars resemble it once they’re there. What would you take to a different planet, where everything from houses to feelings are different? Not always good things. As always, Bradbury manages to sneak some deep reflections on human nature into masterly crafted sci-fi.

 

never-let-me-goNever Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is one of my favourite reads of the year. It is also one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from other people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro manages to build through Kathy’s perspective a cast of very complex characters who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully.

Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic which appears throughout the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. If you were looking for a nostalgic read, this is it.

 

UnknownAtonement, Ian McEwan

Another one for nostalgia. And another one made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, yay. Atonement is a story of love, guilt and childhood. It is narrated from the perspective of Briony, a 13-year-old girl whose mistaken interpretetaion of a scene changes forever the lives of her sister and her lover. The book is divided into three parts that deal with the childhood, young age and adulthood of Briony, and explore how she comes to realise her mistakes and deal with guilt. Beautifully written, McEwan’s settings, descriptions and narrative accuracy make this a book hard to forget.

 

45791The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers

This was an unexpected jewel. McCullers is known to be one of the most important exponents of what is known as “southern gothic”. Whether that is an accurate description of this book or not, I really loved it. Seven short stories are included in this book, of which the most striking might be the homonimous “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “Wunderkid”.

All the stories share this simple yet daring narrator, capable of evoking characters and places that are somewhere between the strange and the endearing. McCullers’ narrative offers a peculiar balance between the internal life of her characters and their exteriors, a balance that comes together in what I identified as the theme of the book: how bizarre human emotions are. Expect some southern settings, grotesque characters and sad love stories.

 

9789877382099Rayuela, Julio Cortázar

Perhaps Cortázar’s book that most resembles a traditional novel. Rayuela —or Hopscotch in English was first published in 1963 and what is perhaps the most striking thing about it is the way in which is it structured. The novel has 155 chapters, but there’s more than one way to read it. You can read it like a traditional book, from beginning to end (and you’d end in chapter 56), or in the order suggested by the author at the beginning of the book.

The book is mainly set in Paris, where Cortázar lived most of his life, and follows the adventures and shortcomings of a group of expatriated—you’ll be reminded of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—, especially those of Oliveira and his relationship with the whimsical and peculiar Maga. There’s a bit of everything in the book, and most of what Oliveira reflects about along its pages, wandering through the rues of Paris, is the nature of narrative, the possibilities and limits of tellings stories and the links between experience and writing. You could say Rayuela is a love story if you think all literature is really about love, a statement I certainly agree with. It is a sad love story, though.

 

snows-of-kilimanjaro-and-other-stories-9781476770208_hrThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is famous for his stripped, simple way of writing. I believe this book is where he takes this to the limit. Stories like “The Killers” and “Fifty Grand” set the way for modern writing and are majestic to read to this day. Reading this book I often thought that Hemingway’s mantra, “write hard and clear about what hurts”, made a lot of sense.

Love, loss and suffering are themes you’ll find among these stories, but overall courage, courage and an honest depiction of the eternal struggle between man and nature, a central theme to Hemingway’s writing. This is a profoundly sad book because not only does it ponder over the mean and the bad in human nature, but because it also depicts the brave and flawed search for love and greatness at the heart of every human endeavour.

Were It Not For Coffee…

“Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”
—Honoré de Balzac
“Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.”
—Gertrude Stein

For me, it is impossible to imagine a world without coffee. It is better to believe that humanity has always counted with its help to get through everyday life, through mornings, through sleepless nights. Nevertheless, the history of the dark, hot beverage we worship today is relatively recent. The use of the coffee tree can be traced far back, to texts like the Odyssey, the Bible or the Quran. In ancient Ethiopia, coffee beans were mixed with other fruits to create a fermented beverage. In other regions of Africa, coffee was used because of its medicinal properties and later it came to the Middle East, where it was known for its stimulant effects. Time after, around the 14th century, it became popular in Rome, not without some discussion against its “demoniac” effects. As to America, coffee arrived during the Conquest and its use dispersed quickly.

The coffee plant, a slender tree with cherry-looking red fruits, does not bear much resemblance to the toasted, aromatic beans we buy in coffee shops these days. We owe this presentation of coffee to 18th century Europe, where coffee was reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The beverage we now know counts Louis XV of France and Rousseau among its first adepts, also Voltaire, who it is said used to drink around 40 cups of coffee mixed with chocolate a day.

It makes sense that a beverage capable of dispelling sleep and improving attention became more and more popular as the world entered the Industrial Age. It also became available not only for the rich, but also for the middle classes and the intellectual circles. Coffee’s popularity caused the emergence of places specialized in its preparation and distribution, cafés. Today we can find many kinds of cafés, but despite their inoffensive image, their history is related to political meetings, literary debates and revolutionary gatherings.

 

Cafés oscillate between the private and the public, between the intimate and the social. The place cafés occupy in history has been crucial for the development of philosophy, politics and literature; hundreds of artists and thinkers have met there to discuss and share ideas. Even when it is a public space, it is also intimate to the extent that many private conversations happen at the same time and voices fade in the general murmur.

Also, cafés are surrounded with an intellectual aura, they used to represent the vie bohème and, even now, poetry readings and exhibitions take place in chic cafés. The characters from Cortázar’s Rayuela, listening to jazz and wandering around Paris’ cafés, the characters from Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes drinking cup after cup and gathering in ramshakled coffee shops in Mexico City, Franz Kafka reading his writings to his friends in a small café in Prague, are just some examples of the close relationship between artists and intellectuals, specifically writers, and cafés.

Even when cafés offer many commodities for groups, but they also have their charms for the lone visitor. Some of the most important literary works have been written in cafés. Hemingway speaks of his writing experiences in cafés in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter in Paris. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot also wrote in cafés, J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a small café in the heart of Edinburgh, The Elephant House, McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in, well, a sad café.

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Apart from encouraging writing, cafés offer a discreet window to the outside world, an opportunity of solitary observation fuelled by caffeine consumption. Cafés open up a space and time where one can just be, where one can just look around or think with the excuse of drinking a cup of coffee. The action of drinking coffee is really just that, an excuse for being late, an alibi, a justification for taking time for one’s self. To drink coffee is to postpone: postpone sleep but also defer physical activity, put off the everyday routine and privilege, instead, intellectual activity, reading, conversation, thought.

Coffee is a place and an activity. The beverage in itself, the extract from coffee beans, is also linked to intellectual life and literary work. Technically, coffee is stimulant because it contains caffeine, a chemical compound that affects the central nervous system directly. Its effect is not that different from that of cocaine, but in a minor degree: it affects behaviour, mood and the answer to external stimuli.

Even when it would be necessary to consume more than 100 cups of coffee to die from it, just a couple of them can dispel sleep and improve our attention capacity. Balzac used to drink more than 50 cups a day when he was working on La Comédie humaine, and he thanked the magic elixir for his writing abilities; he wrote day and night, just taking some naps.

The work of the sleepless writer involves the voluntary deferring of sleep to satisfy a much more urgent need: writing. No matter how relieving sleep might be, night-time seems to be the favourite moment of the day for writers. It is at least the only moment they really own, that moment in which they don’t have to work, perhaps the only time they can dedicate to their personal projects, those which the course of everyday life makes them postpone indefinitely. Night-time also offers silence and a new chance for astonishment, because thins are different in darkness, when it is certain that everybody else sleeps. But night-time could be the theme of another essay; the truth is, coffee allows one to rebel against one’s own body clock, a chance to appropriate the time that shouldn’t belong to consciousness; coffee is a tool in the exploration of night-time.

If Balzac represents sleepless, coffee-addict writers, it is important to speak of the other type of sleepless, coffee addicts, the ones that defer sleep in the pursue of another necessity: reading. Maybe they have to read, maybe they want to read, but in any case, caffeine-fueled reading is a different kind of reading. The effects of coffee, agility and even nervousness, make of it an altered reading that may have some incidence in dreams, that might result in misinterpretation or overinterpretation (the best kinds of reading).

And for the sleepless writer/reader, coffee is an ally in the mornings too. This time is also about postponing, about delaying the start of the day. The morning cup represents a brief time in which we can collect strength to take us through the day. Morning coffee is an intimate moment, a chance to really wake up, with every sense, a personal time in which we may read a book or the newspaper to find out the kind of world we woke up in that day, or simply look at the coffee cup until sleepiness is finally gone.

In the end, to drink coffee is an act of faith, a possibility to be more, to write more and to read more (activities that might be the same), a door into the world. Just like ink and paper, coffee is necessary to literary life. I’m not saying other professions don’t count on coffee, but maybe those who haven’t felt the frenzy of drinking coffee after midnight just to be able to keep reading or writing, don’t feel shivers down their spines when they think that, were it not for coffee, many masterpieces would have never been written.